BERLIN -- In a welcome decision for the world's overburdened peacekeeping forces, Germany's highest court yesterday loosened the leash on the nation's military, ruling that German soldiers may serve and fight abroad.
The decision reverses a constitutional interpretation that had grown out of the guilt and pain of World War II and which had kept Germansoldiers within the nation's borders except for minor humanitarian aid missions recently to Cambodia and Somalia.
Chancellor Helmut Kohl hailed the decision, saying, "I'm very happy about that ruling. . . . We are members of the United Nations. And if we claim the rights that membership entails, we will have to live up to our responsibilities."
President Clinton, whose visit to this once and future capital of Germany coincided with the decision, also said that he was pleased. In recent days he repeatedly has urged the Germans to assume greater responsibility in world affairs, even if that means a military role.
The president sought to ease the worries of some Germans and Europeans who are uneasy with any suggestion of a new German militarism.
"I can envision German forces being involved in something like the United Nations' effort in the [Persian] gulf," Mr. Clinton said at a joint news conference with Mr. Kohl.
"Why? Because of the leadership of Germany, because of the conduct of Germany, because of the role Germany has played in developing the European Union, because of the values Germany has demonstrated in taking hundreds of thousands of refugees from Bosnia."
But as a daily witness to the way Germany's lingering post-war anxieties still shape government policy, Mr. Kohl tried to play down any seeming enthusiasm for an expanded German military involvement.
After Mr. Clinton mentioned that he'd be comfortable with German participation in a coalition such as the one that defeated Iraq in the gulf war, Mr. Kohl leaped in, saying, "One minute. I would like to add something, if I may."
The gulf war was overwhelmingly unpopular in Germany, where polls still show a deep strain of pacifism, and Mr. Kohl said that any future involvement would be decided "case by case."
He also pointed out that the court decision requires that the German Parliament approve any involvement.
"We are not feeling that the Germans are now rushing to the front,"Mr. Kohl said. "I'd like to say that emphatically."
Use of the German army abroad was not a pressing question until the end of the Cold War. Until then the armies of East and West Germany had their hands full at home, tensed for the outbreak of World War III along their border.
In recent years, the international armies of the United Nations have been stretched thin by expanding duties in such places as Bosnia, Somalia and Rwanda.
That prompted the United States and other Western nations to call for Germany to share in the military responsibility.
In response, Mr. Kohl's government sent token forces to Somalia and Cambodia, prompting a court challenge from the opposition Social Democrats.
Their challenge led to yesterday's ruling.